Stressed out: Helping Military Cope with Workplace Stress

Helping military cope with workplace stress

By Allegra Antwine on August 26, 2016

Every job has its own share of stressors. Among the healthy themes of accomplishment, motivation and teamwork, stress rears its ugly head in many forms in the workplace from time to time. Although some stress can be tolerated and even welcomed, there is certainly such a thing as too much. When it begins taking a physical toll and impacting work and personal performance, stress itself can become overwhelming. 
Alex Alexander is a psychotherapist in her first year at Pacific Medical Centers' Federal Way clinic. She was in the military for 14 years, first serving as an enlisted soldier and then as an Army officer. She has 16 years in the medical field and worked at Madigan Army Medical Center before transferring to PacMed. Here, Alexander discusses the types of stress related to military jobs specifically and addresses healthy ways in which to cope with them.

What are some work-related stressors that are specific to military personnel? What are the major differences between these and those of a civilian nature?

Deployments and Temporary Duty Assignments are the main work stressors for military folks because it's difficult to be away from family and friends who serve as that main support system for you. Job stress is different for military personnel compared to civilians because military servicemembers have an added stress of sharing that sense of duty to country that military members are so awesome at. Also, with the added sense of duty to our families, this stress can be complicated to manage. It's a dual role that ends up being probably one of the biggest stressors for servicemembers - that split loyalty.

What would you say are the biggest contributing factors of on-the-job stress?

The overarching knowledge that the stakes are really high in the military environment is well known. Day to day, the responsibilities and expectations of military members are huge. Even younger, lower-ranking servicemembers have humongous responsibilities for large amounts of dollar value and people. Being a military servicemember itself is a physically and emotionally charged line of work. You've got strict orders and the pressure to perform; there's limited time off; and you're dealing with regularly occurring, high-stress situations that most civilians do not deal with on a daily basis.

Are there any negative physical, mental, and/or emotional consequences of dealing with an overabundance of stress at work?

I think we all know that a little amount of stress is not a bad thing; a little bit of stress can actually be a positive thing. If we think about this from a purely physical standpoint, the symptoms of too much stress include headaches, stomachaches, exhaustion and high blood pressure, to name a few. The mental and emotional consequences include temper outbursts, having a short fuse, anxiety, sleeplessness and insomnia. What we've found is that our bodies are really smart, so we try to find ways to cope with these things. These behaviors can lead to dysfunctional coping skills, like drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, eating unhealthy foods and going without adequate sleep. People are really starting to see that physical and mental symptoms are intricately linked in our bodies. The physical symptoms within our bodies can lead to mental symptoms, and vice versa.

How does stress impact work performance?

Stress absolutely impacts work performance! When you're stressed out, you're most likely not sleeping, which means you aren't on your best game. You may be prone to more argumentative behavior, more withdrawn or experience more accidents. Literature tells us that when people are stressed out, they make more mistakes, they take more sick days, and they have more long-term health problems than those who do not deal with ongoing stress in the workplace. Stress can cause you to forget things you easily know otherwise, can cause you to have a poor attitude among your work colleagues, and can unfortunately lead to peers seeing you in the wrong light or even doubting you - things that are detrimental in the military because working as a team is critical to the mission, safety and overall success.

What are some valuable coping tools and techniques for dealing with work stressors?

It's not always possible to change your environment, but you can change how you respond to it. I like to think of this as a step-by-step process. The first step is to acknowledge the stress and the symptoms that are showing up for you as an individual, because the physical symptoms of stress can be an opportunity to make changes before the bad things and behaviors happen. Secondly, I recommend keeping a log or a journal about what you perceive to be examples of stress and how you dealt with it. This helps because it allows you to know how you coped with the stress, whether or not it worked, and provides a record to help consider alternative methods and measures for next time around, which is ultimately the last step of the process.

What positive effects begin to occur once work stress is handled in a healthy way?

It really comes down to what we all want, which is better job satisfaction and a better home life. Those are the two places that really matter to most people, and once the stress is handled in a healthy way, the individual ends up feeling more inner peace and joy because the balance is working for them. Military members and their families sacrifice so much for us and for our country, and having this balance is especially important for them. We also begin seeing fewer emotional outbursts, accidents and sick days - the end result is a better functioning organization.


Is there anything else you would like people to know or understand about stress in the workplace?

I really want to reiterate the importance of believing that if you can't change your environment, you can change how you respond to it. The power of your mind and how you handle yourself can genuinely impact the outcome of the situation. It's important to realize that you are that resource for yourself and that you have the power to be able to help yourself navigate stressful environments and to change how you feel about it. When you feel like you do need some help, don't hesitate to realize that there are free counseling services available to military servicemembers and their families.